Last Monday, I wrote that “If Obama’s four point lead persists through the week, Obama should be considered a very strong favorite for reelection.” The last week has come and gone, and Obama retains a four-point advantage nationally. This argument will be elaborated on over the course of this week, but the bottom line is that Obama’s a heavy favorite for reelection.
In post-convention polls, Obama holds an average of 49 percent of the vote and leads by about 4 points. The president holds a broad advantage across the battleground states, including modest leads in Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Polls released on Friday and over the weekend were consistent with this assessment: The Gallup approval tracker jumped in Obama’s direction on Sunday; the RAND American Life Panel shows Obama securing his largest lead to date with nearly 50 percent of the vote; the highly regarded “Ohio Poll” conducted by the University of Cincinnati showed Obama up five in the Buckeye State, and a wave of Purple Strategies polls pointed toward a broad Obama lead across the battleground states.
While Obama’s 4-point lead is very modest by historic standard, it’s larger than it sounds. Only a sliver of voters are remain undecided and Obama holds approximately 49 percent of the vote, suggesting that Romney will need to fare exceptionally well among the remaining undecided voters and then further count on either low-Democratic turnout or Obama supporters switching sides. All of these scenarios are possible; none are likely. Obama is a well-known incumbent president and voters have hardened impression of his performance, as demonstrated by the stability of the race and his resilience in states where he faced months of uncontested advertisements, like Michigan, Minnesota, or New Mexico. Battleground state voters have already heard a whole presidential campaign’s worth of advertisements, suggesting that a deluge of late spending is unlikely to change the outcome. The possibility of a late swing is further reduced by the rise of early voting, as nearly one-third of voters are expected to cast ballots before Election Day.
Most assume that the heart of the race is still to come, but history suggests that most voters have made up their minds by this stage. Every candidate with a clear lead in the late September polls has won the popular vote in the last fifteen presidential elections since 1948. The debates, for instance, simply haven’t played the decisive role suggested by campaign lore. In fact, most of the biggest late movements in modern presidential history aren’t even associated with the debates, like 1948 or 1968 when there weren’t debates at all. In 1976, Ford mounted a late comeback in spite of a debate performance that included the ludicrous assertion that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” With the exception of Reagan-Carter, the elections with late movement involved unusual incumbent-party candidates who ascended to the presidency or the party’s nomination following the death, resignation, or decision not to run by an incumbent president. That’s probably not a coincidence.
To win, Romney will need to mount an unprecedented comeback against an incumbent president. Such a comeback is not impossible, but history suggests it’s improbable and factors specific to this campaign make it seem even less likely. Obama has held a narrow lead since Romney secured the nomination, despite a cavalcade of purported game-changers ranging from gay marriage and Paul Ryan to the pseudo-DREAM Act and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. This has been an eventful campaign, but few events, including the recent spasm of violence in the Middle East, have influenced the trajectory of the race. If none of the plausible game-changers changed the game, what can?
The history of presidential elections suggests that a generic incumbent president leading by four points with 49 percent of the vote in late September probably has a 80-85 percent chance of victory, before factoring in the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of modern polling. A simple way to think about it: the race has meaningfully changed over the last month in 6 of the last 16 presidential elections (30 percent), but even a meaningful movement in Romney’s direction might only bring about a tied race, since Obama’s at 49 percent.
But this is not just an abstract race. 2012 could go down as the most stable election of the close races in presidential history, suggesting that late movement is unusually unlikely with a polarized electorate harboring well-defined views of an incumbent president. And Romney isn’t a generic challenger. According to Pew Research, Romney is the only major party candidate with a net-unfavorable rating in (at least) the last twenty-four years. Other polls tell a somewhat rosier story, but Romney’s ratings are beneath those of most—if not all—modern candidates who have gone onto win the presidency. Romney’s weaknesses seriously impair his odds of a comeback. According to a recent NBC/WSJ poll, just 21 percent of swing voters have a favorable impression of Romney. Obama’s approval ratings aren’t much better at 31 percent among swing voters, but Obama needs a far smaller share of these voters to prevail, since he holds a 4-point lead nationally. Many of the undecided voters that Romney is counting on simply might not vote, and in critical swing states like Ohio, Romney’s unfavorable rating has eclipsed fifty percent, making it even more difficult to envision how he could mount a comeback.
Could Romney win? Yes. The race is close, Obama remains slightly beneath fifty percent, the race is likely to tighten, and Obama’s unusually dependent on low-turnout cohorts. But a Romney victory just doesn't seem like it's in the cards. Not in the abstract and not after considering the specifics of a static contest defined by the weaknesses of the Republican challenger.